Is it possible to be happily married, or in love, and also be a writer of some worth? Or is happiness inimical to the making of literature that endures? Must writers be brooding, melancholic individuals, forever stewing in the fever and fret of life, or can ordinary, uneventful characters also wager a tryst with greatness?

A cursory glance at the history of art and literature does not present a very inspiring answer. The overwhelming majority of creative souls, through the centuries, did not seem to enjoy the comfort of cheerful conjugality. However, the best among them turned their miseries to their advantage, into fodder for their work.

Socrates did not have the most heartening things to say about his wife, while Shakespeare liked to live far away from his (in fact, both men preferred the company of handsome young men). Jane Austen may not have written at all if she had been ensconced in domesticity, minding a husband and children, whereas Sylvia Plath became the poet she did precisely because of her profound unhappiness with having to do that, among other things. F. Scott Fitzgerald dedicated his books to his wife Zelda, who suffered most of her life from a mental disorder, and Vladimir Nabokov remained devoted to, but also exasperated by, his spouse Vera, his editor, translator and muse. T.S. Eliot had to work at Lloyds Bank for years and nurse his ailing wife Vivienne, who apparently sought pleasure in the arms of Bertrand Russell because of her husband’s indifference to sex.

One would be spoilt for choice were one to pick such pairings, but the following five, not exclusively defined by romantic or erotic feelings, deserve a special mention in the pantheon of curious coupledom.

Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf

They met in 1900 at Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, where Virginia had gone to see her brother Thoby, and married 12 years later, almost on a whim. In the interim, painter Lytton Strachey proposed to Virginia, changing his mind the following day and sending along a glowing recommendation about Virginia to Leonard, then posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as a civil servant. “She is young, wild, inquisitive… and longing to be in love," he wrote, forgetting to add, “with women".

For most of their married life, Virginia felt no physical attraction to her husband (“there are moments—when you kissed me the other day was one—when I feel no more than a rock") and carried on with her girlfriends, most famously with Vita Sackville-West, the model for the gender-bending protagonist of her fictitious biography, Orlando.

All along, she also wanted children, which her doctors forbade her on account of her health problems. In 1941, when she killed herself, Virginia left a suicide note for her husband, telling him, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been." Months after her death, Leonard fell in love with artist Trekkie Parsons even though she chose to stay married to her husband.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

The term Nightmare Couple was coined for people like them. Two of the 20th century’s most important philosophers, Sartre and de Beauvoir were a match made in the inner circles of Dante’s hell. Behind the façade of their “essential love" and pact of “morganatic marriage" were episodes of murderous jealousy, inflamed by their incurably promiscuous natures.

Sartre, with his squat frame and squint, was not the dandiest man about town, though he seldom found himself without female attention and flattery, especially from young students of philosophy. De Beauvoir, regal and ravishing in contrast, had an obvious, magnetic appeal. Afraid of losing her “little husband", she seduced her young female protégés, before passing them on to the “Kobra".

In their several memoirs—de Beauvoir wrote many more than Sartre—they did not spare each other any indignity. Every bit of dirty linen was exposed in public, washed, hung, and dried, only to be trampled all over again. The Sartre-de Beauvoir clique reminded writer Jean Cocteau of “dogs who gnaw at bones, who take turns to piss on the same lamp post, who bite and sniff one another’s bottoms."

Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer/Milena Jesenská

Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images
Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

To Felice Bauer—whom he was engaged to twice, only to break up both times—he wrote some 500 epistles, their tone ranging from worshipful adoration to passive aggression. “Write to me only once a week … for I cannot endure your daily letters," he urged her. “I belong to you … But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life; and that’s why I don’t want to know that you are fond of me. If I did, how could I, fool that I am, go on sitting in my office, or here at home, instead of leaping onto a train with my eyes shut and opening them only when I am with you?" Needless to say, things did not end too well (Kafka later described her as “plain and unimpressive").

With Milena Jesenská, the tables were turned somewhat. An independent-minded editor, translator and columnist, she was deeply troubled in her marriage with a philandering husband when she met Kafka at a café. She was attractive, damaged, into drugs, and had a string of male admirers. They started a tumultuous affair which, once again, did not end happily, though this time due to Jesenská’s refusal to end her marriage to be with Kafka. Perhaps wisely.

She, too, picked up on his fabled self-absorption and pathological inability to commit himself in a relationship. “He was a world within himself," she wrote in his obituary after his untimely death of tuberculosis.

John Bayley and Iris Murdoch

The charming, witty, brilliant and flirtatious Iris Murdoch was the exact opposite of her husband, the balding, unmindful, shy and retiring John Bayley. Their courtship involved rubbing noses, swimming in the Thames, and very little sex. Although they married in spite of their mismatched temperaments, Murdoch continued to have lovers, of both genders, until age and ill health began to catch up with her.

After she was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease in the 1990s, Bayley decided to take care of her full-time, an experience he chronicled in three volumes of his memoirs. From having to keep track of Murdoch’s whereabouts to her dwindling memory to cleaning up after her (she had severe incontinence) to running an exponentially messy household (there is a story about a pork pie left somewhere in the kitchen, never to surface again), the professor of English did his duty, and more. He managed to write articles, books, and later went on to marry a second time.

Their relationship may have been based on half-truths, but there was a core of comfort, trust and love in it.

Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford

There was not a trace of romance between them, but two people could not have been more suited to each other. Their friendship, of which there is delightful epistolary evidence, played out on a note of high camp: Mitford shrieking with laughter on reading Waugh’s letters, and Waugh mesmerized by Mitford’s gift for turning gossip into great literature. Mitford, happy as a lark, refused to take herself seriously as a femme de lettres, chattering away with him in their own private language. Depressive and dyspeptic, he found her joie de vivre highly infectious, if “entirely indecent", and dedicated his novel, The Loved One, to her.

Somak Ghoshal is a New Delhi-based editor and writer.

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